A Walk To The Edge
My personal showdown with Coronavirus, alone in a Midtown Manhattan hotel room
Sometime in February, stories began circulating of a mysterious illness originating in China. I remember hearing snippets about this new “Coronavirus” for the first time and shrugging it off. A virus spreading in a few cities in China? It seemed a world away. I don’t think any of us had any concept at that time of what truly lay ahead. Like a freight train barreling down the tracks, the speed and intensity of events that lead up to a nationwide Coronavirus outbreak — along with the subsequent series of crises it spawned in its aftermath — were simply breathtaking.
Suddenly, it was here in New York City. A 39-year-old woman had tested positive for the virus on the Upper West Side, the papers told us. Then there was a lawyer in his 40s, also in Manhattan. It just kept spiraling from there.
At the time, I was employed by a major grocery store chain in Manhattan. Our manager Jeremy called a store meeting. As team members sat perched on boxes, ladders or whatever makeshift seating we could find, Jeremy gave us specific instructions: we were not going to be allowed to wear masks, gloves, or any form of PPE, at any time. His rationale for this was that it “would be bad optics for the company” for customers to see employees wearing masks and PPE.
Over the following weeks, customers raided us in droves. At that time, no one was controlling the flow of customers in and out of stores or restricting how many customers could enter at a time. The result was weeks of sheer pandemonium. Customers were fighting amongst each other, jostling each other in the aisles, loading up their carts as if they would never be able to buy groceries again. I rang customers up at the register until my arms hurt. My fellow cashiers and I worked like pack animals during those seemingly endless days, leaving us sapped from an exhaustion that transcended physical tiredness.
One evening in March, I was feeling the drag of fatigue particularly hard. I noticed that I was winded just from climbing stairs at the store. That’s strange, I thought. Without being able to put a finger on it exactly, my body was feeling…seriously off somehow. I remember pulling Walter, another one of my managers, aside and telling him that I wasn’t feeling well, that I was probably just suffering from exhaustion and I needed to go home early.
As evening faded to night and into the early hours of the next morning, I developed a raging fever that only grew more and more intense. I looked in the mirror — the person staring back at me had enormous black bags under his eyes and his coloring had drained to a wan, ghostly shade of pale.
With shaking hands, I updated my status on Facebook. “Well friends, I can’t believe I am writing this…but I can no longer stand in denial of my symptoms. I am experiencing difficulty breathing and overnight, I developed a raging fever that has not subsided. I will be admitting myself to the hospital shortly.”
As I rode in a taxi to the hospital in the West Village, I kept thinking to myself, how is any of this real? Is this some kind of nightmare? Am I being cast in a bad sci-fi movie? No…no…this is your actual life. This is really happening. Unreal.
When I entered the hospital, the first thing I noticed was everyone was wearing hazmat suits — even the receptionists were wearing full-body, head-to-toe protective gear. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was still a shock nevertheless. Jesus Christ, I thought. Well, we’re certainly not in Kansas anymore.
Thankfully, because of my lifelong pre-existing asthma condition, I had no trouble obtaining a Coronavirus test. The doctor listened to my labored breathing with concern on her face. “Your breathing is certainly very shallow at the moment…your lungs aren’t expanding enough to force air out,” she finally weighed in. “So you have a lifelong history of asthma. Have you been taking any medications for your asthma?”
“No, up until this point I’ve actually been in amazing health and my asthma has been in remission for years. I haven’t even needed an inhaler,” I told her.
“Well, Daniel,” she sighed and looked me in the eye — “We won’t know the official results of the test we just administered for up to seven days. However, based on the information you’ve given us and the symptoms you’re showing here today, we’re going to call it a presumptive positive.”
How is this real? Again, my mind swam trying to come to grips with the surreal nature of my situation. It was as if I had taken a plunge headfirst off a cliff and some void, chill icy blackness was rushing up to meet me.
After being kept in the hospital overnight for observation, I was discharged early the next morning with strict orders to quarantine for at least the next 14 days. After a series of messenger conversations with dear friends in different parts of the country, the decision had been reached that I needed to spend my quarantine as isolated as possible in a hotel room.
When New York City is your adopted hometown, the idea of putting oneself up in a hotel here for a couple weeks just added another layer of strangeness and the bizarre to this already dreamlike situation. As I stood with my suitcase in tow at the check-in counter of a nondescript economy chain hotel in Midtown, I noted that the hotel had also installed hazmat-like floor-to-ceiling plexiglass dividers in an attempt to shield hotel staff behind the counter from patrons.
Key in hand, I boarded the elevator. Up, up, up. Everything is swimming. The entire world spun as I attempted to conceal my vertigo and nausea. The doors finally opened with a robotic ding at my floor.
I opened my room door and entered a world of white: white comforters, white pillows, white drapes, white towels, white linens. Everything was white. And still…everything is swimming. I rested my suitcase on the floor and stumbled towards the bed. Everything swam in a kind of slow motion, as if I were submerged in a vast aquarium tank. I remember hitting the bed and then blacking out.
Falling headfirst through air. Some void, chill icy blackness was rushing up to meet me.
I woke with a start, gasping for breath and completely disoriented. I couldn’t even remember where I was. The sun had set and the room was steeped in total darkness. I fumbled for the light switch. My sheets were completely soaked through. I was sweating in cascades, as if I had been sleeping in some South American jungle. The virus was announcing its presence in my body, and it felt loud.
I turned on the shower and sat with my ass flat on the shower floor, letting the cool water stream over me. I don’t even know how long I sat there in that shower. By the end, I was shaking and sobbing.
Time ceased to have any meaning and the days melded together. My only connection to the outside world were my phone and my laptop. Every morning as I powered them on, I had to prepare for an avalanche of pings, bells, notifications and messages. Although it was comforting that each bell signified that I have many friends who care about my health, safety and well-being, sometimes the nonstop notifications just became too overwhelming and I finally silenced my phone and laptop and sank back into the bed.
About a week in, my friend Frank O. who lives in Chelsea asked if he could stop by. He had in his possession a suddenly rare and coveted commodity: a bottle of Tylenol. The fact that my friend would brave the streets of NYC during the height of a pandemic to hand-deliver a bottle of Tylenol was an act of sheer kindness I will not soon forget.
I answered the door in my underwear. They featured cartoon bananas set on a field of olive green. Maybe not my best look ever. Thankfully, Frank wasn’t there to judge or care about my skivvies. “You take good care of yourself and don’t focus on anything right now but getting better,” Frank told me as he slipped me the scarce Tylenol bottle. It later hit me that this must be something akin to what the AIDS crisis was like: although it was under different circumstances, gay men came together and helped one another as the world burned.
I always dreaded nightfall. The virus seemed to take on a different character in the night: it raced, roared and pillaged through my body as I shook and burned with fever on drenched sheets. Before I went down for the night each evening, I would issue a silent prayer from the well of my inner being to the Universe, to whatever protects, guides and watches over my life: please stay close to me tonight. I want to live. Please don’t let this thing take me. Please be with me.
I emerged from my battle with Coronavirus a changed person. Six months later, I am still experiencing health complications and difficulties with my breathing and asthma. I suspect that I have sustained long-term lung damage, although thanks to our flawed and broken American healthcare system, I still have yet to receive a single X-ray to assess what the potential damage to my lungs may be. My primary care doctor has tried and failed at a series of prescriptions in an attempt to regain control of my asthma. None of it has really helped — I have gone from a healthy, active individual in complete control of his cardiovascular health to a severe asthma patient who now struggles to climb stairs.
This chapter in my life is still being written. More than anything, I find that I am grateful. I am grateful for simple things that now have become profound things, like waking up to a cool breeze and the sun rising. I’m grateful I can once again taste and smell the aroma of my morning coffee. I cherish and am thankful for my friends and community in a profound, earnest sense that perhaps I wasn’t before. I know I take far less for granted these days.
As Richelle E. Goodrich writes in her book Making Wishes, “Happiness is a simple game of lost and found: Lose the things you take for granted, and you will feel great happiness once they are found.”